If you’re struggling to tighten up a flabby or unruly sentence, where do you start? Generally, I get the best and fastest results by focusing on the verb…
Verbs are especially powerful because they convey action. They tell what’s happening. A strong, simple, active verb attracts attention and resonates with human experience.
In all writing (but especially online writing, and any document with a strong potential to bore or baffle) choose verbs that are:
- Active voice: Strong verbs don’t rely on any form of to be (such as “It is understood…”). Passive verbs mute or mask action. (Yes, occasionally passive verbs are genuinely necessary but usually not. Don’t keep a passive verb unless you’ve seriously tried to eradicate it.)
- Precise and vivid. English is a rich language use it. Explore your thesaurus. Usually you’ll find a simple verb that offers exactly the shade of meaning you desire. For instance, help, assist, or ease generally communicate more clearly than facilitate.
- Not flowery or obscure. This is a judgment call. It depends on how well you gauge your audience’s taste. Basically, choose verbs in order to communicate well, not to impress or sound “official.”
Let’s rework this ugly sentence, which I found in an online business publication:
“To facilitate the organization of the event, the invitation directed the recipients to respond to different planners.”
Follow these steps to fix that sentence:
1. Ask: What does this sentence say is happening here? What is the action being expressed? Who or what is the actor and the object of the action?
The easiest way to figure that out is to identify the existing verb. In this sentence, the verb is directed. Who or what is directing? The invitation. …Yeah, right. Obviously, invitations don’t direct anything the people who write invitations do. Viewed from this perspective, the structure of this sentence is definitely screwy because it masks the true nature of the action.
2. Ask: What’s really happening here? You’ve identified the nature of the communication problem. To fix it, you must discern the true nature of the action. Once you’re clear on what’s happening, the best way to express it usually becomes obvious.
In this case, the main message is that people invited to this event had to do more than simply respond they had to respond to the correct planner (a person, I assume). I’m guessing that the point of this sentence is to justify the added complexity. I could be wrong about that, but since we’re looking at only this sentence out of context, let’s assume I’ve guessed right.
Given that, what is the action here? What verb could work?
Some form of to direct might still suffice although I’d personally avoid that since direct has multiple meanings, including straight and unambiguous. Although those meanings obviously wouldn’t apply here, I think the verb direct creates jarring overtones in a sentence that justifies complexity.
Other options which sound less dictatorial are to ask or to request. These would be more in keeping with the context of inviting people to voluntarily participate in an event.
Let’s choose the simplest, clearest option: some form of to ask. That’s our verb.
3. Identify the subject and object. Who’s doing the asking? I specifically said “who” here because “asking” is something that people do. Documents (such as invitations) can convey questions or requests, but they don’t actually pose the question. This is a subtle distinction, but when you’re tightening up a sentence such nuances matter greatly.
In this case, the company organizing the event (let’s call them XYZ Inc.) is making a special request of the invited participants for a specific reason. So the invitees are the object of this sentence.
4. Put it all together. We have our verb (ask), our subject (XYZ Inc.) and our object (invited participants). We also have the goal of justifying complexity in the response process.
So how about this revision:
XYZ Inc. asked the invited participants to respond to different planners in order to make this event easier to organize.
Again, compare that to the original sentence:
To facilitate the organization of the event, the invitation directed the recipients to respond to different planners.
What do you think. Better?